Berkeley, California, may have been among the first cities to integrate its schools, but at vast Berkeley High School, huge disparities in achievement persist. College-bound white students pack AP classes, whereas African Americans and Latinos languish in classes geared toward basic skills.
To uncover and hopefully address the causes of the achievement gap, former Berkeley school board member Pedro Noguera—now a New York University education professor—launched a massive effort called the Berkeley High School Diversity Project in 1996. A team of researchers, working in the school with teachers, students, and parents, descended upon Berkeley High with the goal of challenging “the normalization of failure.”
The researchers found that the path to failure starts in 9th grade. African American and Latino students, virtually uncounseled by adults, typically take the lowest-level math classes. They also often select teachers reputed to be the least demanding.
The book details, among other problems, the high school’s lack of an effective warning system for attendance and academic problems. And under the discipline system, “misbehaving” African American students, in particular, are quickly removed from the classroom. They’re essentially sent, without intervening steps, to a holding tank where they do little but pass time.
Noguera acknowledges that the Diversity Project, which ended in 2002, did not close the achievement gap. Veteran teachers were happy with the status quo that allowed them to focus on top-tier students, and the school—mostly out of institutional inertia—rejected recommendations to enroll all students in algebra and form smaller schools within the school. While Noguera still claims to be optimistic about the future of high schools such as Berkeley, Unfinished Business reads like a very sad tale.